Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!
Matthew 7:7-11 (NRSV)
As has been noted several times, it can be very easy to lift passages from the Bible out of their historical and/or textual context and apply them as general truths about the universe. The passages in the Sermon on the Mount lends itself particularly well to this operation and church history bears that out.
Our passage today is one of those passages in the constellation of Passages That Are Often Taken Out of Context to Apply to Varied Situations. It’s the same constellation that contains Philippians 4:13 and Jeremiah 29:11.
While we can obviously disagree on the meaning of texts and/or how (if at all) they might apply, today, I hope we’ve come far enough in this journey that we’ve seen the value of viewing the Sermon on the Mount as a coherent whole with main ideas as opposed to a collection of Jesus’ thoughts on a wide variety of topics.
And so, when we come to Matthew 7:7-11, we have to understand this in the thread of the whole sermon and not a generic assurance that God will give us whatever we ask for. If anything, the normal experience of prayer and life should tell us that interpretation is false. Despite what certain best-selling books might tell us, there is no guarantee that if we pray fervently or often enough, or visualize enough, or release our wishes out into the Universe enough that the outcomes we desire will certainly be realized. And given the selfishness or shortsightedness with which we define what we want, this is probably a good thing.
The teaching we have here most closely resembles what we saw in Matthew 6:25-34, which shows us that God will take care of His faithful even though their faithfulness will seriously disadvantage them in the world. The pursuit of the kingdom of God will inevitably put Jesus’ listeners in with the poor and disadvantaged and they will soon face a great time of tribulation, but by pursuing faithfulness and trusting God to take care of them, He will. (SPOILER ALERT: He did.)
The faithfulness that saves is something that any of Jesus’ listeners can pursue and obtain. Indeed, to seek the righteousness of the kingdom is something Jesus asks all of his listeners to do in this very Sermon. The urging to the steadfast and comprehensive pursuit of faithfulness as God has defined it for Israel is perhaps the major “practical application” of the Sermon on the Mount. This is achievable, and the rewards and approbation they will receive from God will more than make up for what they haven’t gotten from the rest of the world.
These values and behaviors may not in themselves be amazingly difficult, but the temptation is to leave them behind to pursue the kinds of things that the world system will reward. Being faithful becomes difficult because faithfulness puts you at a disadvantage in the world; being unfaithful (or simply not caring about it) means comforts and rewards from the world. When the rewards of the kingdom are something that you hope for because of a promise, but the rewards of this world are right in front of your face, it can be very tempting to abandon what you hoped for to receive the goods of the here and now.
Jesus, better than any of his listeners, knew this temptation deep in his bones. He was tempted in this very manner in the wilderness, and it wouldn’t be the last time. But what he wanted was the approval of God and God’s promised rewards, and he knew that if he faithfully pursued these things, he would obtain them, and God would take care of the things he needed in the interim. He was able to endure the hardships of faithfulness because of the joy that was held out before him.
Jesus is sharing this motivation with his listeners. This is not abstract theology, but reasoning and faith that has sprung up in Jesus’ own life as Jesus tries to live out the faithfulness of the kingdom despite the hardships this causes. Jesus is giving his audience a first hand look at the “reason for the hope that is in you” as Peter will encourage his congregation to have. This reason is the promises made by a trustworthy God in whom Jesus has faith. Jesus will stake everything in his life on this faith, up to and including his own execution, trusting that God – as a good Father – will take care of him and make good on those promises.
And perhaps, there in the depths of Jesus’ own heart, might we find a torch that we can pick up and carry as well. Do we also trust God in this way? Is He a good Father who will care for us and make good on His word, or is the sureness – the solidity – of the rewards the world system has to offer a surer bet? Will we try to hedge our bets by keeping a foot on both tracks just in case one doesn’t work out? Jesus assures us this is impossible and, honestly, the idea had probably already occurred to him somewhere between the bread and all the kingdoms of the world being offered to him in the desert. He rejected such a plan and, not without compassion and empathy, asks those who would be his followers to do the same.
- How do you think your life would look different if you fully trusted God to take care of you during a full pursuit of the righteousness of the kingdom?
- Is it possible to carry a belief about God’s trustworthiness but still not actually trust Him? Perhaps this is something you could ask God to show you and help you with in your own life.